April 16, 2013

Supreme Court Decides Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk

On April 16, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symcyzk, No. 11-1059, holding that a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is not justiciable and may not proceed when the lone plaintiff's individual claim becomes moot.

The FLSA authorizes a private cause of action against employers violating certain FLSA provisions. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Employees may sue on their own behalf and on behalf of "other employees similarly situated." Id. Respondent, a registered nurse, brought such a "collective action," alleging that petitioners, her former employers, violated the FLSA by deducting 30 minutes in unpaid meal break from each shift even if the employee worked during that time. Petitioners made respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68: $7,500 for alleged unpaid wages and reasonable attorneys' fees, costs and expenses. When respondent failed to respond to the offer, petitioners moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, arguing that their offer of complete relief rendered respondent's FLSA claim moot. Noting that no other employees had yet joined respondent's suit, the district court agreed with petitioners and dismissed the suit. The Third Circuit reversed. Although recognizing that petitioners had offered complete relief, thus mooting the individual FLSA claim, the court held that using strategic Rule 68 offers to "pick off" aggrieved employee-plaintiffs would frustrate the FLSA's collective-action process. The court therefore remanded for the respondent to seek conditional certification, which, if successful, would relate back to the date of the complaint.

The Supreme Court reversed. The Court refused to decide whether the unaccepted Rule 68 offer actually mooted respondent's individual FLSA claim, instead simply noting that the two lower courts agreed that it did and that respondent waived the argument. The only question, then, was whether respondent's suit remained justiciable based on the collective-action allegations she raised. The Court held that it did not because "the mere presence of [such] allegations in the complaint cannot save the suit from mootness once the individual claim is satisfied." Because respondent's claim was mooted before any other employees had joined, she had no "personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness." In applying these "well-settled mootness principles," the Court explicitly distinguished its Rule 23 precedent—on which respondent had relied—as legally and factually inapposite. Although the Rule 68 offer prevented additional claimants from seeking relief in respondent's suit, the Court reasoned, those claimants "are no less able to have their claims settled or adjudicated following respondent's suit than if her suit had never been filed at all."

Justice Thomas delivered the opinion for the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito joined. Justice Kagan delivered a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.

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